In the Spring, an Old Man’s Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Art

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Spring has come to our valley. That means the sheep have come back to the valley and our horses are behaving like idiots. That means the rabbits are, um, courting, and so intent on their amorous activities they pay almost no attention to man or beast. Almost no attention. Pete the Boxer, recovered from his ear surgery, manages to encourage them to forego “that same sweet sin of lechery” in favor of aerobic exercise.

And spring means the poppies are blooming, turning large patches of the surrounding hills bright orange. Well, bright orange depending on how clear the day is; the California poppy is a photosensitive flower, the petals closing up at night or in cold weather, and if there is enough cloud cover during the day, they don’t open. In wetter years, when we get heavy amounts of rain or snow, the hills are covered with large patches of other wild flowers as well, making the world look like a giant Hans Hofmann painting.

Hans Hofmann.

I went through a period in college where I sped backward in artistic time from Minimalism (my godmother, Anne Truitt, whom I adored, and who doubtless inspired this retrograde journey), to Pop Art (Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein), through a very brief flirtation with Assemblage (Jasper Johns), and finally into Abstract Expressionism. I tried hard to fall in love with Jackson Pollock (couldn’t do it; he made me too nervous) and was well on my way into love with Mark Rothko when I discovered Hans Hofmann. I took a bus from Beloit into Chicago one day to see a Hans Hofmann exhibition at the Art Institute and the effect was electrifying. There was nothing intellectual about my reaction to his work; it was simply a visceral and emotional response, somewhat akin to seeing the most beautiful girl in the world in a bikini on a sun-drenched beach and having her smile radiantly at you. You don’t dissect the discrete components of your reaction; you just sit there dazzled.  I bought a poster, a reproduction of the museum’s official poster, and it hung on a wall of every place I lived for many years.

I know why I fell out of love with modern art, but it’s hard to explain. Basically, it had to do with bad modern art. I lived in New York for seven years and spent a lot of time going to museums and galleries, but so much of what I saw was, well, just plain stupid and/or unattractive: gimmicky, sensational, uninspired, frequently tasteless, and sometimes I had the impression it was all just a bad joke being played on people who had more money than taste by a conspiracy of gallery owners and untalented artists eager to relieve said people of some of said money. I saw stuff that disgusted me, stuff that made me annoyed I had wasted my time going to that gallery, stuff that struck me as moronic. I don’t give a damn what the critics say, or if it does bear a name like Duchamp: if I see a urinal on the wall, I want to pee in it. (Yes, yes, I know he predates Rothko and Pollock, but it’s a good example of what I didn’t like.) Gallery owners trumpeted twelve year old children as the next great geniuses; untrained gang-bangers who honed their skills on other people’s private property; gimmick art; cartoonish three-dimensional characters devoid of Lichtenstein’s social commentary; found objects. The list could go on, but it came to an abrupt head with Andres Serrano.

Do you know who Andres Serrano is? He is the gentleman who made his fame and fortune by using “bodily fluids,” notably blood, urine, semen, and feces to create works of what he conned onto a gullible public as art. He rocketed to notoriety after he displayed a crucifix in a vat of his own urine, a work which was subsequently purchased at auction by someone with considerably more money than taste or brains for $277,000. I had already decided I was either too intelligent to waste my time on modern art, or not intelligent enough to understand and appreciate it (I’m still not sure which), but Serrano put me over the top; over the top and back into the refreshing arms of traditional, old-fashioned, representational art: landscapes, horses, dogs, wildlife.

I know this means I am hopelessly old-fashioned myself, and it probably also means I am an artistic simpleton and a sort of cultural coward, but at least I know where I stand, and I’m not as much of a coward as Andres Serrano. If he really had the courage of his shock-art convictions, he’d put an image of Mohammed in a vat of his urine. Then we could send him on one of those State Department cultural exchanges to Iran or Afghanistan or someplace. Think what that would do for the world of modern art!

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